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Should Toronto burn its trash for energy?

An artist's sketch shows the proposed Clarington waste facility. HANDOUT

The principles of power generation have been well known for centuries. Little has changed since James Watt dreamed up the steam engine in 1763.

You start with stored energy. In Watt’s case, highly flammable carbon from English coal mines. You release that energy through combustion. You use the released heat energy to create immense amounts of pressure by boiling water, thus, steam engine. That pressure, if properly channeled, is used to generate power.

Ontario’s coal-fired power plants still operate according to this ancient principle. So do our nuclear plants, which boil water using the heat released by nuclear fission.

An unlikely consensus is emerging in Toronto that we should use this time-tested method to wring energy from our waste. But with communities up in arms about proposed (and cancelled) gas plants, and concerns about pollution in the air, is burning our trash as hot an idea as its proponents think?

Torontonians do not presently incinerate their waste — we have considered it before, but the idea has always died. In 2010, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called the method “noxious and expensive.” And the last time Toronto considered waste incineration, in 2007, then-mayor David Miller and then-works and infrastructure chairman Glenn de Baeremaeker said that Toronto had “no intention” of implementing it.

But other GTA municipalities don’t share our concerns.

Peel Region has been incinerating its waste for the past two decades at an Energy-from-Waste (EFW) plant in Burlington. York and Durham regions have recently decided to join Peel, funding an EFW plant presently under construction in Clarington.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Covanta, the U.S. company behind the Clarington plant, is keen on the technology’s promise. “After [you] reduce, reuse and recycle, some residual waste still remains,” says Jill Stueck, a vice president at the company. “[Energy from Waste] facilities provide a fourth R — recover — to sustainably recover energy from the residual waste left over.”

Instead of being in opposition to waste-diversion efforts like composting, recycling and reduction, Stueck sees EFW plants as complementary.

According to her, Covanta’s EFW facilities only accept post-recycled solid waste, and communities with an EFW facility typically have higher diversion rates than communities that do not.

The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) is unconvinced. One of the foremost environmental lobby groups in Toronto — counting among their alumni city councilor Gord Perks, and having hosted David Miller at fundraisers — they have been pushing for increased waste diversion for decades.

“Talking about Energy from Waste is starting with the wrong question,” says the TEA’s chief waste campaigner, Emily Alfred. “We’re not diverting enough of our waste. We have a lot of garbage we should be diverting.”

Alfred says about 40 per cent of the waste output of the average household is organics — leftover food, vegetable peelings, and so on. Another 40 per cent is paper, metals, plastic, glass and other packaging — recyclables. Only the final 20 per cent — textiles, large durable goods like appliances — cannot be diverted.

Covanta, for its part, claims that it’s part of the environmental solution, not part of the problem. Diversion, according to Stueck, is part of the energy-from-waste process — after waste is brought to the plant, it is dumped onto an enclosed and sealed ‘tipping floor.’ There, plant staff separate non-combustible items and divert them to their proper destination.

“EFW facilities annually recycle approximately 700,000 tonnes of metals from the waste stream AFTER local recycling efforts have been employed. That’s enough metal to build nearly 50 … bridges a year,” Stueck says.

But according to Alfred, these diversion efforts aren’t addressing the core issue because incinerators aren’t after your refrigerator. They’re after recyclables and compostables.

“The things that actually have the energy value — the calories, the BTUs (British Thermal Units) — are the organics and plastics,” explains Alfred. “They don’t want you to divert all your organics, to divert all your plastics. Then they’re burning some broken dishes and an old mattress.

“The lure of cheap and free and easy energy from nothing is not really there.”

The closest analogues to EfW plants, to the TEA, are coal plants — and the TEA maintains that incineration is even dirtier than coal.

Although Covanta’s facilities are equipped with pollution control technology — according to Stueck, this technology makes up about 40 per cent of a plant’s initial cost — they still produce much more air pollution than hydro, solar, or wind energy.

And at a time when coal plants are shutting down and coal plant workers are losing their jobs, should we really be investing more in a dying industry?

John Sprackett, of the Power Workers’ Union, believes that a compromise is possible.

The Power Workers’ Union organizes the workers that run Ontario’s electrical infrastructure — not only power generation, but distribution and regulation, too. And the closure of coal plants is hitting them hard.

According to Sprackett, the closure of coal plants kills “well over a thousand jobs.” However, they’ve come ready with a solution.

“We’re trying to get the government to consider the prospect of converting those [coal plants] to a combination of natural gas and biomass,” he explains. “These plants can be converted for very little money … the conversion cost is very cheap, compared to building a new plant.”

And biomass, Sprackett explains, comes in many forms. Although existing biomass plants in Ontario use wood pellets, it is possible to co-fire them with diverted waste, such as the one being built at the Toronto Zoo. A converted plant would be agile — able to use natural gas, pelletized wood or post-recycled waste.

And in contrast to the cancelled gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga, converting coal plants should be a snap.

“[The plants] have existing transmission lines, they have existing host communities that are supportive. Converting those [plants] is not controversial whatsoever in those areas,” Sprackett says.

Landfills are ugly things — and so it’s no surprise that incineration should hold an intuitive appeal. But as the government’s experience in Oakville and Mississauga shows, it is one thing to approve a plant’s construction, and quite another to actually see the project through. Covanta admits that communities may resist EFW facilities at first – but eventually, they feel, communities will see the light.

“Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is a major challenge for a lot of companies and projects, not just Energy-from-Waste facilities,” Stueck says. “Take for example the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) in Minneapolis, MN. It has operated for almost two decades in a warehouse district until the MLB Twins decided to move next door. Now, not only is HERC powering the team’s Target Field baseball stadium, but it is also being envisioned as a green anchor for revitalizing that downtown area.”

But what if we could achieve the same objective, with a supportive community already in place? And what if Toronto’s waste — along with cleaner-burning fuel sources like natural gas — could save jobs and communities from decline?

“We’re hoping that these existing plants — particularly given the troubles that the siting of the Oakville plant and the Mississauga plant [have had] — highlight the value in what we’re saying from the start,” concludes Sprackett. “These [existing] plants at Nanticoke and Lambton are so valuable.”

This article first appeared on Yonge Street.